Ignore the set of Billy Budd, and you'll hear a masterpiece
Throughout Houston Grand Opera's Billy Budd (1951), an unseaworthy mechanical gizmo spins on stage — it's an annoying mechanical platform that's supposed to be the deck of the English warship Indomitable. The thing never stops moving, even during composer Benjamin Britten's most impressionistic scene changes. But if you can ignore the hydraulic metal monster as it whirs away and just listen, you will hear a masterpiece.
The opera tells the story of illiterate English sailor Billy Budd, who is pressed into service during the Napoleonic Wars. He is so good and innocent, handsome and virile, that all on board take an immediate shine to him, from the philosophical Captain Vere, who recounts the tale in flashback as a broken old man, down through the ranks of the lowly sailors, who call Billy "Beauty" and "Baby." Even sadistic master-at-arms Claggart — as unrepentant as Iago — is troublingly stirred by Billy's vibrancy and, like Iago, vows to destroy him.
Our hero's only imperfection is a paralyzing stutter that occurs when he's upset. When Claggart falsely accuses Billy of mutiny and he's commanded by Captain Vere to answer the charge, he can't. In frustration, he lashes out and fells Claggart with one blow. During the shipboard trial, Vere doesn't speak up in Billy's defense, and he's sentenced to hang. On his climb to the yardarm, Billy absolves the captain by shouting, "God bless Captain Vere," averting a potential mutiny. Vere, having put law above his own conscience, is forever haunted by what he has done. In one of opera's most powerful endings, he slouches off stage amid total silence.
Designer Brian Thompson, under Neil Armfield's direction, confines us to an inky void with a grimy cloudscape backdrop, and of course, the aforementioned platform. But the dramatic and aural glories of Britten's superlative adaptation of Herman Melville's last, unfinished novel are abundantly on display, and it's here that HGO catches the wind. Britten splashes us with swirling salt spray, muscular sea shanties and the undulations of deep ocean currents. E.M. Forster (A Passage to India, A Room with a View, Howards End) is the unlikely librettist for this sweat-and-lash-soaked tale; along with co-writer and Britten stalwart Eric Crozier, he subtly nudges Melville's Christian allegory toward the contemporary with decided homoeroticism (or with as much nudging as they felt comfortable within the closeted and repressive England of post-World War II). The subtext was already present in Melville; the opera brings it to the surface.
As Billy Budd, baritone Daniel Belcher exudes youthful exuberance as he scrambles over the heaving set, despite the fact that he's been cursed with a stringy blond mermaid wig straight from rocker David Lee Roth's garbage. He sings with total conviction, whether he's waxing rhapsodic in "Billy Budd, king of the birds," or plangently prayerful in his expansive yet gentle farewell from below decks. As malignant Claggart, bass Phillip Ens has Budd's juiciest role — if you don't count the chorus — singing this fiend with booming, malevolent relish. And as "Starry" Captain Vere, tenor Andrew Kennedy has an open, fresh sound and immaculate enunciation — no surtitles needed for him! — as he ponders his "endless sea" of guilt and remorse. He manages to bring highfalutin Vere down to earth.
The supporting cast throws itself into the nautical life with a hearty heave-ho. Especially buoyant are tenor Chad Freeburg as Novice, who betrays Billy to forestall another flogging; bass Gwynne Howell as Dansker, the wise old salt; and baritone Philip Cutlip as Donald, the below-decks jokester. The all-male chorus sings the rousing war anthem "This Is Our Moment" with appropriate dramatic gusto, while maestro Patrick Summers invests Britten's score with the very smell of the sea. In HGO's hands, this opera — in sound, at least — sails majestically onward.
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